I spent the earlier part of this week at the Primetime Sports Management Conference, hosted by Gord Miller and headlined by Brian Burke, Bryan Colangelo, Kevin Cheveldayoff, to name a few. (Kevin Adams, the NY Giants assistant GM qualifies as a headliner too – smart man.)

The most interesting panel featured the four men mentioned above, and was (largely) on the topic of player evaluation.

Dana Sinclair moderated the panel, and started out with a simple question – in sum, “What do you think about using analytics for evaluation,” and the GMs pretty much took it from there.

I live-tweeted the majority of it, but 140 characters can be limiting, and damning if you crib a guy’s quote wrong, so let me explain the points Burke was trying to make to those of us in attendance.

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This was a pretty terrific start to the panel, because Burke literally just said that and waited for someone else to speak. You got the impression that Burke doesn’t want people to know how much they use analytics, for fear that other teams will start paying more attention to them too.

Hey, Grabovski was re-signed through 2017 at $5.5M per year. I think that speaks to my guess.

This wasn’t so much on player evaluation as the Toronto Maple Leafs brand. When it was brought up that some of the world’s biggest soccer teams are okay with ads on jerseys (and have that extra revenue stream), he talked about how much more merchandise a team like Manchester United would sell if they just had a logo (like the Leafs) and left it pure. 

In a nutshell “Yes we could make more money if we did that, but we already make lots, there’s no reason to tarnish the product with a freaking Home Depot patch.” (From the soccer people I’ve talked to, it sounds like Man U. does have a logo, so…I dunno.)

This is a bit of a garbled tweet – the first point he was making is that you can over-think things a million different ways (I had them in the wrong order), but there’s no substitute for talent, as much as they love “heart.” We’ll get more into the Sedins farther down, but the topic of “pure talent” led to them coming up. They’re um, very good.

The question was how much stock the GMs put into the “other” stuff, like combines and interviews. Most teams are generally just looking for confirmation of what their eyes tell them when watching games. As in, that guy looks strong, does he push much weight? He looks fast, does he sprint well? And if it turns out a guy you thought isn’t strong or fast is, maybe you have to re-assess. That was my experience with fitness testing: they’re just looking for good and bad outliers, surprises.

As for the interviews, Burke says the Leafs do theirs early in the season, like November. He says by the time a prospect emerges, they’ve been so heavily coached on what to say you never get to know the real guy, hence the “I want to be a team captain one day” line coming out so much.

Burke told the story of Trevor Linden calling him to say he had to skip some fitness testing pre-draft to help on the family farm (castrating bulls!), and that told Burke more than any interview ever could.

He explained the process of draft day, and how their list works. Basically they have regional scouts compile lists of the young talented players in their respective areas, then they send “cross-checkers” for comparisons, then they work up a master list. In the case of the last entry draft, every team had very different lists, but liked the majority of the players in the top 10 just fine, so there’s was no point in trading picks with anyone.

Apparently going off that master list is a major offense. Scouts spend their entire year trying to be right on two days, so making a “gut decision” on the day-of and veering off course means you don’t value your scouts opinion, and people have to be replaced.

Found that interesting, didn’t know that.

Burke said he saw the twins play at the World Championships when he changed his mind, after initially seeing them at the World Juniors and being unimpressed. He was surprised to see them added to the roster of World Championships as 18 year olds (being that it’s a man’s event), and on the word of his scouts, decided to give them another chance. He went from trading the Canucks pick to adding another.

A quick interjection on the Burke stuff here from Cheveldayoff, the Winnipeg Jets GM: he was saying the tendency is to see something in a player, draft him, and not believe your wrong until far too late.

This was an excellent line. There’s nothing less cool, to me, than having the chance to make personnel decisions and sitting around with a bunch of mediocre players. I’m of the “trade potential for realized talent” mind (Kessel trade may look bad in the end, but this team has needed him to be remotely interesting, and draft picks don’t always pan out), and Burke seemed to be too.

Might as well go down with guns-a-blazin’ if you’re gonna go down (which you eventually will as a GM).

I guess he tells this story often, but anyone who knows fantasy sports knows this move. “Well, I really want that guy, but don’t think others do, let’s take a risk and pick the guy we don’t like as much, hope the guy we like is still there later.” What’s fun to think about with that move is that sometimes teams try this and their guy gets taken, so they leave the draft hating their new prospects. Oh, happy day!

The Leafs truly do value character, and I’m of the mind that their GM has a lot of it too:

Comments (10)

  1. I understand what Burke was doing, and I understand that he didn’t think the Leafs would be a lottery team, but there’s no “may” about the Kessel trade. It’s bad.

    • Thing about trading prospects – almost impossible to assess what would have been. Would Seguin have developed the same way in TO? Do we really know what Dougie Hamilton would have done there too? Look at how some of their other prospects have panned out and going with the proven talent might have been a plan.

  2. Kessel trade wasn’t and still isn’t that bad. Chances are Hamilton will turn into a very good defender and Boston will win the trade, but as it stands now the Leafs got one of the best goal scorer in the league who still has a decade of hockey left in him for draft picks.

  3. Soccer kits typically have the team crest on their jerseys, not necessarily huge logos. I don’t mind the sponsors on their jerseys, they are typically very tastefully done. Sometimes they become apart of the jersey like when Celtic had Carling and Liverpool with Carlsberg. It’s weird now seeing their jerseys without them. If they can design NHL jerseys as gracefully as soccer ones, I wouldn’t mind as much.

    • As someone that likes soccer, but only watches it when it’s on at the bar (usually on mute), I find that I often can’t tell which team is which because the Jersey says “Arab Emerites Air”. That’s very lame.

  4. “Apparently going off that master list is a major offense. Scouts spend their entire year trying to be right on two days, so making a “gut decision” on the day-of and veering off course means you don’t value your scouts opinion, and people have to be replaced.”

    “Burke said they had Percy higher on their list than Biggs, took Biggs first cause knew other teams wanted Biggs, got both.”

    Hmmmmmmmmmm………

  5. “Won’t have ads on their jerseys”

    Yeah. Right.

    If the NHL opens that door, the tail doesn’t waive the dog. Think he should give his head a shake and remind himself who his employer is.

  6. But no compassion (re: Peter Zezel)

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